Grief, Thankfulness & The Delima of October 20th

Ten years ago, I approached this day with nervous trepidation. I had never lived with a woman as husband and wife. I fully anticipated that my future with April would be glorious. But I had no clue what my life was about to become.

Turns out all the nerves that got me up and dressed by 5AM on October 20, 2012 were justified in the same way this grade school boy once rightly burst with enthusiasm the morning before his first game at Wrigley Field. But what I experienced these past nine plus years defied even my expectations of what could be.

As we turned the corner into the wedding chapel’s back annex, I kissed my purplely person for the second time and felt pure happiness. All was well with me. I was her husband, and she was my bride. We went on to kiss so much those first few days that we practically rubbed her chin raw. Oh, to love and be loved.

The Last 9+ Years

The sweetness of that first week translated into a lifetime of joy. I got the awesome privilege of watching my bride go from being the girl who put chili powder on our cinnamon toast to one of the best cooks I know. She mastered the skill of chopping fresh vegetables, of making log cakes and of crafting her own recipes not from personal interest per se but from love. Truth be told, she hated to eat and always found the consumption of food to be a chore. But she loved caring for me and our kids and found joy in living out the command to be hospitable. The girl who once thought her home should be a castle helped me see that our home needed not to be a fortress but an oasis for the weary and heavy laden…our brothers and sisters in Christ.

As she grew, we grew. She proved to be my greatest spiritual companion these last years. On the inside of our wedding rings were inscribed the words, “sanctification buddy.” She fulfilled that promise. I benefited greatly from her insights into theology as we talked through the Scriptures that we were memorizing together and hashed out my sermon texts both before and after the service. During those early years of ministry, we also learned together the importance of placing our trust in the Lord as opposed to our feelings. We were the worst of prophets.

Though she possessed a gifted mind that made her a great counselor, her faith was not academic. She patiently bore with my insecurities and failures, extending mercy and forgiveness when I sinned against her. And long before anyone else, she encouraged me to be a senior pastor. She cheered me on through every difficult season of study and church reform resolutely saying, “I don’t know why you worry; I always knew you could do it. I never doubted you.” She had a resolve when it came to her theology and to living out that theology and yet a sweet spirit of submission and charity. She delighted in being my sanctification buddy and I hers.

And she could pray. When she wrestled through her own failures, doubts, and sorrows, she cast her cares on the Lord, trusting him to care for her. She pleaded with God to grow our church, to heal her body, and to save our children.

As the prayers recorded in her journals evidence, my dear April was also the best of moms. She delighted in her children even when they were spilling food, writing on the walls, and throwing up all at the same time. And as she cooked, cleaned, and homeschooled our three children, she took note of their special personalities and delighted in encouraging Lacey’s passion for music, Lily’s love of board games and puzzles, and Luke’s passion for basketball. I loved parenting with her and hearing her joyfully recount all that she and the kids had done.

I also had the privilege of helping her understand that its ok for boys to bleed and that winning a three-hour sit-in with your three-year-old does produce huge long-term benefits. And she showed me how to slowly lean into a hug from a lonely four-year-old and how to patiently delight in a six-year-old’s silly story performed on a makeshift stage. We made a great team.

Perhaps most importantly of all, she was fiercely loyal to me. I was hers. As she would tell me often, “Peter, I chose you.” She was no man’s captive. She dated me, married me, and stayed with me because her heart overflowed with love for me. She sacrificed for me at every turn, allowing me to get my counseling certification, to pursue my PhD, and to serve as a senior pastor. One of her last prayers consisted of a request that God would bless me with a happy PhD graduation. She endured the hardships of ministry gracefully and embraced having to walk through seasons where she functioned as a single parent. She never once resented me for having to visit this person or attend that meeting. If anything, she spent those lonely and exhausting hours praying for me, our children, and our church family. About a month before she died, I knew things were on the brink of disaster because a church emergency arose and for the first time in our marriage, she asked me to stay.  

Even as her breast cancer began to get the upper hand, she pressed forward because of her love for me. She did not want me to suffer the piercing loneliness that I now know all too well. In many ways, she anticipated far better than I the sorrow that was about to crash over me and did all in her power to protect me. She was an amazing woman. She loved me. Oh, what a joy it was to come home to her, to talk with her, to be with her. As I told her often, the only thing I wish I had done differently in our courtship was marry her sooner. Oh, to have loved and been loved by April Gentry Witkowski.

What Now?

And now ten years later… my sanctification buddy is gone. Our marriage is over. There are no cards to write nor dates to plan. Once again, I find my heart on an October 20th filled with nervous trepidation. I have no clue what tomorrow will bring and cannot predict what form God’s deliverance will take. As I noted before, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. And while I struggle to wait patiently upon the Lord, I face the daunting task of trying to make sense of this day that meant something so very different just a few short months ago.

How does one both appreciate what was and push forward towards what could be? What does one do with what was once his anniversary?

In one of her journals a few months back, my dear April penned these gracious words:

I can’t express…how much my marriage means to me. Peter is more than a best friend or partner; he is the one whom my soul loves. He is the one I always want to be with. I never grow tired of talking to him…You gave me the exact husband that I always prayed for. Thank you! Thank you for giving me something so great!

I suspect that I will never fully know what to do with October 20th. But I know where to begin. I will follow the lead of my dear wife one last time and thank our heavenly father for what was. Or to quote my dear April, “Thank you for giving me something so great!”

May God be so merciful to me again.

Processing Grief: Making Sense of Funerals & Weddings

Among pastors a well-known maxim exists that funerals are better than weddings. While weddings can be destroyed by bridezillas and can be dissolved quicker than they can be planned, funerals universally succeed in their mission. No one pops out of the ground two years later, declaring that they never truly were in love with that piece of ground or that they found death to be a rather antiquated idea derived from one’s patriarchal forefathers. The above maxim transcends denominations for it rest upon the certitude and the inescapable finality of death. But for all its common sense, the maxim fundamentally fails to account for one basic reality of death: those saints left behind have every reason to envy those who have gone before.

Marriage, Singleness, and All That

I have never stood up for the bridal march and thought, “I wish I were the groom.” Sure, I rummage through the rhetorical questions that everyone asks such as, “Him and her…how; she’s seen his dumbo ears, right; and surely, he knows about the doll collection?” But, I never once wanted their relationship or their wedding.

Once while at a ‘seminary’ wedding, I had the good fortune of being seated next to two other former boyfriends of the bride. Seemingly, we all earned our invitation through having sacrificially feed and entertained the bride-to-be in the months leading up to her relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Though we collectively spent that wonderfully awkward afternoon mulling about as the seminary version of the lost boys, none of us objected to the marriage. None of us shared her desire to ‘redeem’ October 31 through a Christian marriage service. (Again, score one for the seminary bubble). But thankfully, the bride had found a man who did and rightfully became one with him.

And the three of us? We were all the better for their decision. You see, the glories of marriage depend upon the object of that marriage just as much as they do upon the institution itself.

Over the next few years, that conclusion became solidified in my mind as I watched poor marriages sideline men from ministry and women from the mission field. Few things prove more damming and destructive to one’s life than marrying poorly. In other words, what do those who trade their whole life for honeymoon sex or a ticket out of mom and dad’s house get in return for their sacrifice? Not much. As wise king Solomon noted a few thousand years ago, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house share with a quarrelsome wife (Pr. 21:9).”

Still the thought of being single and thirty seemed rather depressing to my very, single and aging twenty-something self at that time. In addition to adopting some very sad dating strategies, I also decided I would head off to the jungles of the pacific if I reached thirty with no wedding ring. In my mind, the solution to the loneliness of singleness was to maximize the usefulness of that singleness. As the missionary and martyr, Jim Elliot, famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Why not hold my single life loosely and give all for Christ or die trying? In one sense, that sentiment was a jest. But in another sense perhaps, it was more real than most realized.

Thankfully, I never reached that moment of decision as I encountered the glorious and very purplely April Gentry at the seasoned age of 27. I got that ring and a marriage far more wonderful than I could have ever imagined with more than 22 months to spare. God was kind.

But with the passing of my dearest love, the thought of seeking an opportunity where I might once again give all for Christ has become more appealing. My soul resonates with the idea of being a chaplain in the killing fields of Ukraine or of working discreetly in Afghanistan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why not risk it all for God?

Of Puritans and Dying

The Puritan writers of old spoke of death as being a harbor from the of storms life…a kind of Ellis Island like portal to heaven. Indeed, those who have trusted in Christ at death get to leave their ships riddled with temptations and infected with the lust of the flesh. At death, the Christian exchanges all that misery to gain residence next to Jesus for eternity. As Thomas Watson noted, “Death…takes away a flower and gives a jewel.”

And what of you and me? We remain in the storm, bracing for the next wave of trials and temptations that is sure to come crashing over us. The choppy seas of sorrow churn without end.

While I would never swap places with any other soon-to-be husband no matter the bride’s looks, bank account, or character, I would eagerly trade places with any saint now at my Lord’s side no matter how impoverished their faith was in this life. The glory of heaven has one object, Jesus Christ. In other words, death contains a universal object while marriage has many ends. Thus, we have every reason to be envious of the dead for our path to heaven proves to be the same as there’s. To quote John Flavel, “[We] are yet rolling and tossing upon the tempestuous sea, but your friend is gone into the quiet of the harbor; desire rather to be there than that [she] were at sea with you again (71).” Oh, to be in the harbor with my late wife.

What Now?

Though I long for heaven, I suspect I still have a good many days left. I won’t be running off to the wilds anytime soon. The Father has lovingly anchored my life in the sholes of normalcy next to my three precious children and my loving church family. Said another way, my life will not be shaped through the extraordinary storms of bullets and bombs but through the ordinary storms of less-than-stellar family meals and full laundry hampers. I also suspect this route to be the harder of the two since my imagination projects the battlefield as being the path of least resistance. But alas, here I am.

Still, I concur with Thomas Brooks who said, “all the strange, dark, deep, and changeable providences that believers meet with shall further them in their way to heaven, in their journey to happiness.” While to die is gain, to live is Christ. I very much believe that new joys will continue to accumulate. New loves will come. To quote King Solomon again, “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc 3:4).” And just as God guided David when he fought Goliath, I know he will walk with me as I make a mess of my girls’ hair for umptieth time in our quest for a new normal. My battle is the Lord’s just as much as was David’s. His steadfast love will guide me. Hope remains.

But the realities of the storm will also continue. New waves of grief, temptation, and sorrow will come. Funerals will still find me out. And when they do, I suspect I will once again leave envious of the saint in the coffin before me. Indeed, the end of the thing is better than the beginning (Ecc. 7:2; 8).

A Sign, Grief, & Prayers for the Future

The disruption of grief ebbs and flows as a tide freed from the predictable confinements of the moon’s rationality. And with each sweeping set of sorrows comes new decisions. Some being codified by our legal system float above the waters. Others jump out at us from under the dark waves without warning. It is the later that prove most difficult because they defy anticipation. For example, the innocent blue and white wood sign hanging above my fireplace that my late wife painted a few years back recently became unavoidable point of tension in my heart. I could not get over the phrase, “Established 2012.”

In one sense, it was the most basic of truths. Twenty-twelve was the year in which I asked my dear wife out for the first time, popped the question with a princess cut diamond ring, and then said, “I do” before a hundred or so witnesses. But 2012 was more than that. It was the year my soul was knit to hers to an eternal love forged in the fires of faith and trust. And it was that love that I rested in time and time again in the years that followed.

Many know of the sorrows that April and I endured when we buried our first-born son. A few others knew that we suffered a miscarriage between the births of our second and third child, another pain that scarred our hearts. But no one knew of the almost suffocating isolation of ministry that enveloped our souls at times. Though we thought about sharing the depths of our sorrows, divine prudence dictated that we do otherwise. There were no public dialogues, FB posts, or blogs. Only the two of us and the Lord knew the full extent of those days. But as we debated how to best apply theology to this and that situation, memorized Scripture, read ferociously, and lifted our concerns to the Lord, sweet blessings arrived. Our love for Christ and for one another become ever more fixed and more glorious. Oh how we both delighted in those long weekends spent eating Mexican food in Dublin, shopping in Warner Robins for a deal that would align with our simple budget, and walking the few historical sites of note that dotted the middle Georgia landscape. Even in the worst of days, I knew I could pour out my soul to her with all its faults for she loved me as she had been loved by Christ. Indeed, many a bitter day followed 2nd Peter’s death, the miscarriage, and those times of intense isolation. But her love was always sweet, charitable, and unfailing. Hope was always close by. Even in the worst of days, I was the most blessed of men.

When we arrived in Virginia, we came to start anew and to live our lives without the secrecy that had defined our past and that of so many other pastors. As her cancer descended upon her with unprecedented speed, we both embraced the public nature of the moment, seeing our suffering as an opportunity to live out our theology…to do what we had always longed to do…to cast a vision for what could be. But then that which was perishable was transformed into that which is imperishable. What had begun in 2012 ended in 2022. And now that sign…

Though my blessed April exchanged mortality for immortality, the secret memories and sorrows of times past have not disappeared. Rather, they have shifted in-whole to my shoulders. My heart has ached under their pressure of late. As I succumbed again to the waves of grief, those old muscle memories from years ago took over, and I looked afresh for the profound solace derived for my wife’s faith. But I found only the profound emptiness and sorrow that comes with losing one’s soulmate.

But with the tears came clarity. I now know that while a modified version of our vision for what could be still belongs in my heart, those recollections of sorrow need to be carefully stored in the depths of my heart away from the light of the present. I need to cast them fully upon the Lord, trusting myself to his care. In other words, those memories are my past – a past that both profoundly and positively shaped who I am both in an out of the pulpit – but alas, still my past. For better or worse, my kids know little to nothing of our experiences from those years. My family as it exists today did not begin in 2012 but in the tragically late hours of June 25, 2022.

In other words, God has ordained that I begin anew and that my kids begin anew as a family of four. The burdens of yester-year are to be laid aside. However much I mourn this transition and fought to prevent its arrival, I can no longer maintain perfect continuity with my past. Our shared experiences are no longer the essence of who I am. That chapter of my life is now complete. A new chapter awaits.

And so as the waves once again begin to recede, I join my sweet children in beseeching the Lord to bless our family with the woman that would necessitate one more beginning. Waves of sorrow and glimpses of hope; of love lost and loves to come. May God be merciful.

And the sign? It came down.